“Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked a Movement” by David K. Johnson— From Initiation to Permanence

Johnson, David K. “Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked a Movement”, Columbia University Press, 2019.

From Initiation to Permanence

Amos Lassen

A new type of publication appeared on newsstands in 1951. The physique magazine produced by and for gay men came out of the publishing closet. For many gay men growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, these magazines and their images and illustrations of nearly naked men, as well as articles, letters from readers, and advertisements, was a way of entering the gay world; a kind of initiation. The publishers behind these magazines were part of a wider world of “physique entrepreneurs”: men and women who ran photography studios, mail-order catalogs, pen-pal services, book clubs, and general advertising for gay audiences. Businesses such as these have been seen as peripheral to the gay political movement. David K. Johnson here shows how gay commerce was not a byproduct but rather an important catalyst for the gay rights movement.

Johnson gives us a look into the lives of physique entrepreneurs and their customers, and by presenting many illustrations, the book looks at the connections—and tensions between the market and the movement. Magazine circulation rates were many times higher than the openly political “homophile” magazines. Physique magazines were the largest gay media outlets of their time. This network of producers and consumers helped foster a gay community and turn over censorship laws and pave the way for free and open expression. Physique entrepreneurs were at the center of legal struggles, especially against the U.S. Post Office and this includes the court victory that allowed full-frontal male nudity and open homoeroticism. The book reconceives the history of the gay rights movement and shows how consumer culture helped create community and a place for resistance.

Johnson did fine and deep research to bring this book to light and we get  look at pre-Stonewall gay male activism through a bold group of physique photographers, magazine publishers, and booksellers who were much more militant than the Mattachine Society and who built a far larger constituency through their explicit portrayal and defense of homoerotic desire. There are many surprises here.

By asserting their right to sell and buy and read what the law tried to ban, these publishers first challenged repression, then fostered gay community, and ultimately helped to build a movement. Below is the Table of Contents:

List of Illustrations
1. Emerging from the Muscle Magazines: Bob Mizer’s Athletic Model Guild
2. Selling Gay Books: Donald Webster Cory’s “Business with a Conscience”
3. The Grecian Guild: Imagining a Gay Past, and Future
4. “I Want a Pen Pal!”: Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield and the Adonis Male Club
5. Defending a Naked Boy: Lynn Womack at the Supreme Court
6. Consolidating the Market: DSI of Minneapolis
7. The Physique Legacy

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